Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Deathstalker II
While filmmakers work very hard to make a good film and stumble into a cheesy one, the hardest tone to pull off is camp. Intentional cheese leads to films like the Sharknado series and Troma Entertainment’s output. Movies that are so aware of themselves that they never attain the special spark to become cheesy. Like a lot of a their A-picture brethren, they emerge as simply mediocre.
But Deathstalker II, aka Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans, manages to walk that tightrope well. As director Jim Wynorski will tell you on the DVD commentary or at a live appearance, he was assigned the Deathstalker sequel when he worked for cheesemaster Roger Corman. At the time, Corman’s company was making mad cash with cheap Conan rip-offs made in Argentina. You may have seen some of them: Barbarian Queen, The Warrior and the Sorceress, Sorceress and the original Deathstalker.
When Wynorksi arrived in Argentina, he was handed a script full of Conan cliches. Because no one was watching, he and star John Terlesky rebuilt the script out of the one thing in English airing on Argentine television: Looney Tunes shorts.
Instead of a Slab Riprock type, Terlesky plays Deathstalker with a Bugs Bunny edge. He’s kind of a goofball who is vaguely aware of his square jaw good looks. Given the opportunity to play self-awareness, Terlesky comes off more charming than the other Deathstalkers across the four official films in the series. Aiding his Bugs appeal is a world barely holding on to its Hyborian trappings and a mad assortment of characters lamely attempting to stop Deathstalker from reaching his goal.
Oh, right. I should mention plot. Deathstalker agrees to help an exiled princess named Evie return to the Kingdom of Jzafir. There, the evil sorcerer Jarek plans to use a magic clone of Evie to consolidate his power. Along the way, Evie and Deathstalker recruit a village of warrior women — including GLOW wrestler Dee Booher — to help lay siege to Jarek’s castle. There’s also some stuff about a sorceress with a thirst for revenge against Deathstalker, but good luck figuring out how it matters.
Curiously, the original Deathstalker follows a similar plot. But the sequel’s irreverence for the already tired sword-and-sandal genre puts it in a special place where camp and cheese meet. Only in Deathstalker II could the filmmakers get away with inserting the title into dialogue and not get laughed out of the room.
Also, the movie looks cheap as hell. As Wynorski tells it, the film was the last flick Corman made in Argentina before certain tax breaks and a favorable currency conversion came to an end. Consequently, borrowed sets from earlier productions look fairly ratty. It also forced Wynorski to shoot most of his scenes in a flat lighting scheme. Compared to earlier Corman fantasy flicks, already inexpensive affairs, Deathstalker II looks like the community theater version. But strangely, that is part of the film’s appeal. It ends up feeling like the good-natured work of friends and family. The gags are free to be inside jokes because the filmmakers presume they will be the only ones to ever see it. The ratty sets are transformed by the flat lighting into something charming and seemingly homemade.
The performances also come from a similar place. Some of the line readings are terrible, but feel so at home in the world Wynorski and crew conjure up from the dumpster behind the studio. Other actors shine as they find the correct tone for the story they’re loosely telling. Leading the pack is Terlesky, who actually makes a pretty good B-Movie hero. In another world, he might’ve been a TV Flash Gordon with his looks, winning smile and aptitude for physical comedy.
Monique Gabrielle makes a fine partner for Deathstalker as Evie. She’s … not a great actor, but their scenes together have a spark not found in the other Deathstalker movies or most of the Corman sword-and-sandal pictures. Even in her whinier moments, she seems to be in on the joke of the film and gives what she can. She also plays a dual role as the Princess’s magic clone. On the commentary track, Wynorski suggests certain scenes of the clone were based on some of Gabrielle’s less charming qualities, but it proves she has a little range as all of Evie’s sweetness disappears.
So with halfway decent acting, terrible art direction and a filmmaker ready to laugh at himself and his predicament, Deathstalker II manages to be the rare cheesy movie which set out to be cheesy. Like the best cheesy movies, it ends up having a sincerity which overpowers its technical flaws. And to do that on purpose is an amazing feat.
Deathstalker II is available as part of a Roger Corman’s Cult Classics Sword And Sorcery Collection from Shout! Factory. The set also feature the original Deathstalker, The Warrior and the Sorceress, and Barbarian Queen. All of which make for great cheesy movie watching.